The 15 Best Documentaries You Can Watch On Netflix Right Now

While Netflix is starting to make inroads into the best picture category at the Oscars, it's been making a strong showing in the best documentary competition for some time. Although its feature documentary catalog does not stretch very far into the past (the oldest film on this list is from 2016) and is mostly American (there's only one film here from outside the U.S.), it still has plenty of docs that are worth discovering.

True crime stories, like the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and the sexual abuse of U.S. gymnasts, are popular topics, but there are also documentaries on prominent figures from recent history, such as James Baldwin, RBG, and Beyoncé. There are explorations of social issues, including racism and the corruption of corporations under capitalism. Even if the subject is something that the viewer feels they know well, watching these documentaries should still be an act of discovery, providing new information on a well-worn topic, trying to solve a mystery, or shedding light onto a hidden scandal.

Four films on this list are hybrid documentaries that blur fiction and non-fiction, using reenactments to explore their subjects and turning drama into a form of therapy, while perhaps the most rewarding defies definition entirely. Here are the 15 best documentaries that you can watch on Netflix right now.

13th

Ava DuVernay's brilliant essay-on-film draws a direct line from the days of slavery and the 13th amendment to the modern prison-industrial complex, which is essentially slavery under another name. With contributions from Angela Davis, Van Jones, Cory Booker, and even Newt Gingrich, this is a wide-ranging discussion of how the history of the United States has directly led to the over-incarceration of Black men, who can be used as for-profit labor by the corporations that run private prisons. 

Policies such as segregation and voter suppression all contribute to this phenomenon, as do Republican politicians, who regularly overstate how much crime cities face in order to appeal to their voters. In fact, as "13th" shows, violent crime rates are actually dropping, but the number of people being incarcerated is higher than ever.

DuVernay provides forcefully persuasive evidence, and you will likely come away from "13th" feeling fired up and angry. The use of music really adds to this propulsive, very well-edited documentary. It's an overwhelming experience, but feels like it should be mandatory viewing.

I Am Not Your Negro

An adaptation of James Baldwin's unfinished work "Remember This House," this extraordinary documentary by Raoul Peck is divided into chapters and chronicles Baldwin's complicated relationship with America, as well as his memories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. 

In addition to footage of television interviews with Baldwin, the writer's words are compellingly narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. "I Am Not Your Negro" examines portrayals of Black people in the media, including in films and advertising, during the 20th century. The Kennedys, particularly Bobby, are prominent figures in the story, which includes a recount of a meeting between Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin, and Kennedy. 

Rather than attempting to be an all-encompassing documentary about Baldwin, Peck wisely does two things: he uses Baldwin's own words to communicate his message, and also keeps the focus fairly narrow. We don't find out much about Baldwin's time in France or his writings on sexuality, for example. Baldwin's urgent, insistent words are about America as a country and the reckoning it must have with itself in order to change for the better.

Casting JonBenét

Before making our skin crawl with the narrative feature "The Assistant," director Kitty Green used the still-unsolved murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey as a jumping-off point for a fascinating hybrid documentary. Green uses the casting of the main figures involved in the case for the purposes of filmed reconstructions to discuss how Ramsey's murder became a media sensation, and how it led to many different theories as to who killed her and for what reason. 

The main thing that attracted so much attention to the case was that JonBenet had been entered in beauty pageants by her mother, Patsy. Like the Ramseys, many of the women and men auditioning to play Patsy and her husband, John, are from Boulder, and during the documentary share personal anecdotes related to the crime, as well as lots of speculation about the parents' involvement. 

Seeing how the different actors calibrate their performances based on their opinions of the people involved in the case is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. "Casting JonBenet" is an unusual twist on the true crime genre, one that is more about people's interpretations of the events in question than the murder itself. It is not the only documentary on this list that uses acting as a way to discuss or cope with real traumatic events; still, it's a revelatory way of exploring difficult subjects.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

This documentary follows Victoria Cruz's investigation into the 1992 death of Marsha P. Johnson, an activist for LGBTQ rights and a prominent figure in the Stonewall riots. Despite its title, the documentary gives almost equal attention to Johnson's close friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, who died 10 years after Johnson. There is a lot of footage of Rivera available, most of it heartbreaking, including her being booed while trying to speak at a Gay Pride event, and footage from when she was homeless, living at the same Hudson River piers where Johnson's body was found. 

Cruz diligently and tirelessly tracks down people who can tell her more about Johnson's life and death, including her friend Randy, who Johnson lived with for over a decade. Many different theories are posited as to what may have caused Johnson's death, which was officially ruled a suicide. Perhaps she fell in the river while being pursued by homophobic attackers, or maybe she was the victim of a Mafia hit. 

Unfortunately, answers probably won't be found, but Johnson and Rivera's lives and the lessons they can teach us still matter — as the documentary shows, the same issues that Johnson and Rivera were fighting in the 1970s are still relevant in the 2010s. "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson" is an important watch.

Shirkers

If I could urge you to watch a single documentary on this list, it'd be this one. "Shirkers" is the story of a group of young filmmakers who made a film in Singapore in 1992, only to have the footage stolen by an older man who was supposed to be their mentor.

As someone of a similar age to director Sandi Tan, "Shirkers" is incredibly relatable to me. In the '90s, Tan wanted to be a Coen sister, had a shrine to Brecht, and made collages and homemade zines. Watching "Shirkers" makes me desperately want to be friends with Sandi, Jasmine and Sophie both as teenagers, and also as adults. As someone who has remained friends with the same group of people for decades, their relationships are extremely recognizable to me, particularly Jasmine constantly calling Sandi out as an a-hole.

"Shirkers" is one of the most energizing, invigorating, and inspiring documentaries ever made. It's frustrating to see footage of what looks like an amazing film that was lost and never properly finished. However, the documentary also shows us what's possible when a group of friends comes together and invests in a project for a summer. It's a snapshot of a time and place, even as it somehow evolves into a detective story. It's simply an all-time great documentary.

RBG

Julie Cohen and Betsy West released two documentaries in 2021, "My Name is Pauli Murray" and "Julia," but they are still best known for their 2018 film "RBG." Released a couple of years before Ginsburg's death, this film manages to almost deify the subject by looking at how the long-standing Associate Justice of the Supreme Court became a pop culture icon. 

There is so much to Ginsburg's life that, even with a feature-length running time, a documentary or a biopic (see, for example, "On the Basis of Sex") is always going to feel like skimming the surface. In addition, it's always odd when one of the talking heads in this style of documentary is the subject herself. However, despite being made in a straight-forward way, "RGB" offers enough information on Ginsburg's fascinating life to make it worth watching, especially if it's your introduction to her story. 

It's still astounding to discover how little women were allowed to do just a few short decades ago, and how limited their options were. Through seeing the incremental changes that RBG managed to pass into law, we get a good understanding of how women's rights evolved over the course of the 20th century. The memes may be annoying, but Ginsburg is such a monumental figure that she probably deserves an entire documentary series, to say nothing of an individual feature.

Bathtubs Over Broadway

Not every documentary has to be about a hard-hitting subject in order to be compelling. Sometimes, a topic with low stakes can be a welcome change of pace. In fact, some of the best documentaries are about extremely niche interests, and films like those only work if they have an infectiously enthusiastic person (or people) serving as our gateway into a weird and wonderful world. 

In "Bathtubs Over Broadway," this person is the former head writer for "Late Show with David Letterman," Steve Young. At one point, Young was tasked with finding unusual vinyl records for the show, and accidentally stumbled into the hidden world of the "industrial musical." Basically, when big corporations like Ford, Hoover, or Kraft had their annual conventions, they would often commission original musicals that promoted their brand's values, offered advice to salesmen, and featured storylines involving the company's products. Young becomes obsessive about finding recordings of these musicals, as well as tracking down their writers and performers. 

It's a window into the post-war consumerist boom that lasted from the 1950s through the 1980s. If you're interested in mid-20th century Americana, as I am, you will love this documentary. "If the musical is the American art form, then the industrial musical is the hyper-American art form." It illuminates an American corporate world that no longer exists, when workers served for life, and would make a great double-bill with "American Factory."

American Factory

This Oscar-winning documentary was helped by having the weight of Netflix and the Obamas behind it, but it's still a surprisingly frank look at a Chinese corporation that opens a factory in Ohio and the culture clash that ensues. Those involved presumably thought that this would be a heart-warming tale about one culture learning from another and discovering that we're not so different after all, but it evolves into something quite different in its final third. 

"American Factory" ends up covering the union-busting efforts of the Chinese company and American higher-ups after the workers start to raise valid safety concerns. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert may have ended up with something different than what they set out to capture, but that can often lead to the most exciting documentaries to watch unfold. One of the most eye-opening sections comes when a small cohort of American workers visits China, and it becomes clear just how different the work culture is in the two countries. 

"American Factory" doesn't have one or two "main characters," and it suffers as a result, but it's a big topic with many sides to cover. The circumstances that led to the situation — the workers were initially laid off by General Motors — could fill an entire documentary themselves. "American Factory" does an excellent job at capturing a very specific moment in time in the heart of America.

Homecoming

Part concert film and part behind-the-scenes documentary, Beyoncé maintained strict creative control over "Homecoming," as she now has the power to do with all of her projects. This doesn't mean that we don't see a more vulnerable side to the superstar, however, as "Homecoming" shows her working extremely hard — shortly after giving birth to twins, no less — to get ready to headline Coachella, making her the first Black woman to do so. 

The editing of the concert footage, which was filmed across two nights (one with a pink theme and one with a yellow theme, both inspired by Historically Black Colleges and Universities), is already the stuff of legend. The bleachers behind Bey are filled with a drum line, a marching band, a string section, and dancers in coordinated outfits, making for an amazing spectacle. Beyoncé is also, of course, joined by special guests such as Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child, making it feel extra special. 

If "Homecoming" were just the concert footage, it would still be spectacular, but the behind-the-scenes insights really add to the whole experience. In the end, "Homecoming" is one of the best-ever concert documentaries.

Dick Johnson is Dead

In 2016, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson made the documentary "Cameraperson," and in 2020 she followed it up with "Dick Johnson Is Dead," another highly personal work that chronicles the last stages of her father's life. "He's a psychiatrist, I'm a cameraperson. I suggested we make a movie about him dying. He said yes," Johnson explains. Johnson films her father's "death" in various outlandish scenarios (many involving stuntmen), as well as his funeral and scenes of him in heaven. 

Dick Johnson is starting to suffer from dementia and, in between the silliness, there are moving scenes in which he realizes that he can no longer drive a car or live alone. However, by staging his funeral with his real friends and family, Dick Johnson gets to hear all of the nice things people say about him before he departs. This is a great film about filmmaking, and one continues the theme of acting as therapy, which is prevalent in many of the documentaries on this list. It's also an incredibly tender exploration of aging and death. 

Conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's often involve many different stages of loss before the end, and watching a loved one gradually disappear can be extremely hard for everyone involved. Kirsten Johnson bravely documents this process, and ends up with a beautiful, funny tribute to her father that is ultimately full of life.

Athlete A

Documentaries about current events can vary in quality, as evidenced by quite a few pandemic-related films that have already come out. "Athlete A," however, is worth your time. "Athlete A" is about doctor Larry Nassar's sexual abuse of members of the USA Gymnastics team, including multiple Olympic athletes, which he hid under the guise of medical exams and physical therapy. It also covers the staff and wider culture that allowed the abuse to happen, arguing that either nothing was done about the allegations, or that the higher-ups actively sought to cover them up. 

The key figure of the documentary is "Athlete A" herself, Maggie Nichols, who alerted officials about Nassar's abuse in 2015. Other former gymnasts, including Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher, also have prominent roles in the documentary. This is also a film about local journalism, with the Indianapolis Star being a driving force in revealing how widespread the abuse and the resulting cover-up was. 

The most moving part of "Athlete A" comes towards the end, when the victims have a chance to read statements in front of Nassar at his 2018 sentencing. The bravery of the girls and women who came forward and spoke up cannot be overstated; this documentary is an excellent tribute to their strength.

The Last Blockbuster

While this documentary isn't particularly well-made, it is notable for many reasons. For one, a documentary about the last Blockbuster Video store in the world being on Netflix of all places is deliciously ironic. "The Last Blockbuster" chronicles the rise and fall of the video rental behemoth, which put most independent video stores out of business, only to slowly die out itself until there were just a few Blockbuster stores in Alaska and one in Bend, Oregon. 

Another irony is that the last remaining Blockbuster location, the one in Bend, is very much like the mom-and-pop stores that the huge corporation drove into the ground. Run by Sandi Harding, who has employed her own children along with most of the other teens in her small community, the last Blockbuster is now beloved by locals and visited by tourists from far and wide who are keen for a shot of nostalgia. 

The talking heads in this documentary include Kevin Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Adam Brody, and Ione Skye, alongside a range of frankly annoying comedians. "The Last Blockbuster" would have benefitted from greater focus on Sandi, the true hero at the center of the story, but it still makes for a welcome distraction from documentaries about much darker subjects.

The Sparks Brothers

Both Edgar Wright and Sparks had quite a 2021, which saw the release of both Wright's "Last Night in Soho" and also the musical "Annette," which is full of original Sparks songs. They also collaborated on Wright's first documentary, which chronicles the career of a band that has somehow gone under-the-radar, despite being around for over 40 years. The talking heads (filmed in black and white) are made up of Wright's friends, including Jason Schwartzman and Mike Myers, along with long-time Sparks fans from the music world such as Beck, Thurston Moore, and Jack Antonoff.

Wright combines archival footage, stop-motion animation, live-action recreations, and innovative illustrations to create a lively, witty experience. It helps that the documentary is built around Ron and Russ Mael, who are unusual and highly entertaining subjects. When everyone nostalgically talks about first seeing Sparks on "Top of the Pops," the film recalls a bygone era during which pop culture was dictated by magazines and TV shows, not the internet. 

The documentary gives a true sense of a band that evolves over time, with each of its albums being different from its last. Most of the people who I know who watched this film had never heard a Sparks song before viewing and still really enjoyed it; a documentary should be a feat of discovery, and that's exactly what "The Sparks Brothers" is.

A Cop Movie

"A Cop Movie" is very much a documentary of two halves. The first part follows Teresa, who has been a Mexico City police officer for half of her life. We get unprecedented access to her work, and she speaks frankly about the challenges involved in her profession. We also meet Montoya, another police officer, who we discover is Teresa's boyfriend. We see these two cops at both home and at work, speaking honestly about the bribery and corruption that makes their jobs harder, but is the simple reality of the system they're working within. 

In the second half, it is revealed that Teresa and Montoya are actually played by actors named Monica and Raul, although their characters are based on real people. We then see the process that the two actors went through, including enduring police training and embedding themselves with the force, to make the experience as authentic as possible. Raul in particular struggles with the assignment because of his animosity towards the police, and we see him grappling with his decision to be involved with the project. 

Hybrid drama-documentaries such as "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" and "All These Sleepless Nights" have become more prevalent in recent years, but "A Cop Movie" lays the acting process bare in its second half, showing us how the sausage is made. It's fascinating.

Procession

"Procession" is another recent documentary that uses actors to make a "non-fiction" film. Here, reenactment is very much used as a form of therapy. That's par for the course for director Robert Greene, who has explored the line between fiction and reality in his previous documentaries, which include "Fake It So Real," "Actress" and "Kate Plays Christine." 

In "Procession," a group of men who were abused by priests as children come together to confront their past, returning to the locations where their trauma started. They also hire a child actor to play a boy who symbolizes all of them collectively, while one of the men takes on the role of a priest. The bravery of the men as they explore and expose what happened to them, rather than just burying the experiences and pretending that they never happened, is extraordinary to witness. 

The final reenactments are irrelevant; in "Procession," it's the process that is powerful to watch. "Procession" is likely to be Oscar-nominated; if so, it will be a worthy addition to Netflix's roster of award-winning documentaries.